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CAMPAIGN 2000

Sparks Don't Fly as Bradley, Gore Debate

March 02, 2000|CATHLEEN DECKER and MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

Taking a sharp detour from the acrimony that enveloped their earlier clashes, Al Gore and Bill Bradley genially appealed to voters in a gentlemanly debate Wednesday that drew out only a single, reluctant distinction over who best represents Democratic Party values.

Not until 75 minutes into the 90-minute debate did the former senator from New Jersey try to make his case that Gore would be a wounded nominee. And he made it only after he was questioned by a media panelist about the mild tenor of the evening's remarks, a tone that transformed the debate into a valedictory of sorts for Bradley's sputtering campaign.

After Bradley had omitted his usual criticisms of Gore's past record on issues such as gun control and abortion rights, he was asked whether he still contended that Gore would revert as president to a more conservative posture than he has demonstrated as vice president.

Bradley responded that the public record defined the two Democrats, and he cited as an example five votes Gore made as a member of Congress, from 1979 to 1981, supporting tax-exempt status of schools that discriminate.

The issue of discrimination by educational institutions has been the chief focus of the Republican presidential race in recent weeks, since Texas Gov. George W. Bush visited South Carolina's Bob Jones University, which bans interracial dating and whose founder has maligned Catholics and Mormons.

To make that a campaign issue in the fall, Bradley said, Democrats will need a candidate who comes to the issue without a complicating record.

"We should be attacking them for that," Bradley said. "But when we attack them, if you attack them for that, then they're going to come right back and point to those votes and it's going to be a very difficult case to make."

Gore tried to deflect the issue by citing his opposition to tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University. And he also brushed aside his more conservative past votes on abortion and gun control.

"Early in my career, I opposed public funding for abortions. I never supported criminalization of abortions," Gore declared. On guns, he said that, like "millions of Americans," he had come over time to the view that "we've got to take on" the National Rifle Assn.

But for that exchange, the debate, co-sponsored by CNN and the Los Angeles Times and held in the Harry Chandler Auditorium at The Times, perfectly defined the state of the Democratic race.

Gore, the prohibitive favorite in Tuesday's slate of 16 Democratic caucuses and primaries, including in California, looked ahead to the general election, soberly assailing the records of Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the leading Republican candidates.

(Republicans Bush, McCain and former diplomat Alan Keyes will debate in Los Angeles tonight.)

Bradley appeared to have his eye on history, or at least how historians will treat his candidacy. Unfailingly gracious, he referred to Gore as "the vice president," a term of deference that he had refused to employ earlier in the campaign. On issues such as gun control, racial profiling, campaign reform and the reach of lobbyists, Bradley repeatedly left unsaid his stock Gore criticisms.

The closest he came to upbraiding Gore was a repetitive mantra that the nation needed a president fully committed to his issues.

"Above all, what we need is a leader who is committed to this every day he's in office," he said when the issue turned to gun control. "Otherwise you'll never beat the NRA, and I'm there to beat the NRA."

Gone, however, was his usual gibe at Gore's voting record early in his congressional career, when he occasionally sided with the NRA.

The vice president joined in the camaraderie, repeatedly following a Bradley remark with the line, "I agree with that," and casting the two as ideological soul mates bent on together denying the White House to the Republicans. As the debate ended, the two shook hands and Bradley good-naturedly slapped Gore on the back.

The tone of the debate was the subject of much guesswork this week, as analysts suggested that Bradley had to land a knockout punch to revive his flagging campaign and change the dynamics of the race. The news earlier in the day was not good for the former senator: A Los Angeles Times Poll published Wednesday found that Gore led in California by a ratio of 5 to 1.

The news was similarly bleak in other states voting Tuesday. Gore also got a boost Wednesday with the endorsement of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

Bradley's fate was a subtext to the debate, rising to spoken level when panelist Jeff Greenfield of CNN addressed what he called "the elephant in this room" and asked Bradley about his fading chances.

Bradley rejected the premise that his campaign was doomed, noting that the two candidates are fairly close in delegates and that the biggest contests are ahead.

Tuesday, he said, "is the day that we will have a national primary and that is the day that I think you have to take off. I'm looking at next Tuesday as the takeoff day for me."

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